St Albans Arts Theatre cinema plan gets go-ahead

LIGHTS, camera, action – St Albans should have a new seven-day-a-week cinema by the end of the year.

In a bid to stem the losses – and subsequent subsidy – required to keep the Maltings Arts Theatre open, the council’s cabinet agreed on Tuesday night to turn it into a seven-day cinema.

But it will still have the capacity for occasional live performances such as the sell-out annual appearance by St Albans-based jazz trumpeter Stan Tracey.

Refurbishing and adapting the theatre on the second floor of the Maltings shopping centre will mean an outlay of over �400,000 but cabinet believes it will recoup the capital cost within four years.

The council’s interim head of special projects, Clive Miller, told cabinet that while the theatre was seen as an intimate performance space with a good view from all seats, it was also perceived as poorly signposted and advertised with restricted leg room and poor seating with a lacklustre and tired appearance.

The �400,000-plus will be spent on new digital projection and sound, 3D projection, new seating and signage and alterations to the cafe, foyer and box office.

Although it will not be eligible to show new releases, the cinema will be linked up to specialist companies who distribute films and could well have themed film showings and be open for children’s films during the daytime.

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After two unsuccessful bids to attract a multiplex cinema to St Albans combined with a large retail and housing scheme, the council is now looking at fewer smaller cinemas in the district.

The former St Albans Odeon, now renamed the Odyssey, in London Road, is due to open in around two years time and the owner, James Hannaway, accepts there is scope for more than the one additional screen in the city which he is proposing there.

Marion Hammant, on behalf of St Albans Civic Society and the group fansofstan set up to promote the Stan Tracey concert, spoke at cabinet in favour of retaining live performance at the theatre.

She said: “We are asking that whatever cinema scheme is decided on, there should be a continuous programme of live performance that is not reduced so much that it becomes non-existent. If live events are good enough and marketed well enough, they don’t need subsidy.”

Council leader, Robert Donald, said he was “passionate” about the arts theatre because he had been chairman of the committee in the 1980s which had fought to get it opened. He commented: “Why we are doing this and it has taken a long time in gestation is that we want to save council taxpayers’ money and reduce the subsidy which has been budgeted at �100,000 for next year.”

He went on: “We are not short of live performance venues. If this was the only one there might be more of a case for it.”

Cllr Donald said he felt the council was “selling young people short” and cited surveys which showed they wanted to be able to see films in the district. He added: “We have got to be realistic about this. We have tried to have live performance every day. We can’t carry on as we have done and we need a radical change. I expect it to meet a need we have been talking about for years.”

Current programming at the theatre will continue for the early part of this year with a view to it closing for reburbishment mid-year and reopening as a cinema before 2011 is out.